The subject of Winnebago Man hardly ever goes anywhere, but the movie covers a tremendous amount of ground. One of its themes is the journey director Ben Steinbauer took in making this beautifully transparent documentary, which wound up nowhere near where it started.
Mark Twain, who was a kind of connoisseur of cursing, once wrote: “When it comes down to pure ornamental cursing, the native American is gifted above the sons of men.” Maybe so, but Jack Rebney, whose operatic swearing in outtakes from an industrial video for Winnebago RVs won him the title of Angriest Man in the World on the Internet, makes the average American look like an amateur. Steinbauer lays out Rebney’s story neatly in the first few minutes, showing us choice excerpts from the outtakes and explaining how they went viral, passed around on videotape before YouTube and watched and rewatched by a growing group of “fans,” including Steinbauer. He puts Rebner’s video in context by interviewing some shaggy and insightful talking heads about why we love to watch people melt down or make fools of themselves.
Then he tracks down Rebner himself, 20 years after the video was made, and things get really interesting. At first, Steinbauer is motivated by a mixture of guilt (after a segment on how the subjects of other viral videos were humiliated by the mocking attention they got, he wonders aloud if the same thing happened to Rebney) and curiosity (as one of the people he talks to later puts it, “The Internet’s like the modern-day freak show, except you don’t have to pay a nickel to get in. [Meeting Rebner would be] like meeting the three-headed boy or something.”) But his motivations and expectations keep changing as he and his subject get into a prolonged battle of wills over how Rebner should be portrayed in the film.
The Rebner Steinbauer gets to know is a lot savvier and more complicated than the hapless victim of his guilty imaginings. A former broadcast newsman who quit “on principle” when the business started to degenerate into the mess it is now, Rebner is 76 and a self-described hermit when Steinbauer finds him. He’s utterly disdainful of modern-day media, especially the Internet (in a request for information that he posted online, he calls electronic devices “the work of the devil”), yet he wants an audience for his jeremiads, which are mostly about how Dick Cheney is ruining America (the Bush Administration was still in office while Winnebago Man was being filmed). Steinbauer is convinced that people want to hear Rebner talk about his personal life, not his politics, so he keeps cutting him off to redirect the conversation. And that pisses Rebner off, sometimes resurrecting the ghost of that angry man of the Winnebago video.
That’s not all we see of Rebner, of course. We learn about his kinder, gentler side mostly thanks to his best friend, with whom Rebner drops the guard he usually maintains around Steinbauer. We hear his articulate and insightful descriptions of thing like his descent from vision impairment to total blindness, which he calls “having my vision leave me. It’s almost like a divorce,” he adds. “I couldn’t understand what I had done.” Also revealing and moving are his interactions with fans at San Francisco’s Found Footage film festival. You can almost see him shed a long-held layer of defensiveness as he talks afterward about how surprised he was to learn that these people—well, most of them, anyhow—watched his video not to mock him, but to get a vicarious thrill from his volcanic venting. “That really is the human condition, in the end. We’re all facing a tremendous amount of adversity,” he says.
That’s a seminal moment, but it wouldn’t pay off as big without the lively push-pull that gives Winnebago Man so much of its vitality and tension. There were times when I wondered if Steinbauer was just perpetuating the wrong he initially wanted to right by making this film. I mean, imagine being a former journalist, gifted at using words and brimming with urgent opinions, and becoming famous in a medium you hate for going ballistic while shooting a training video, of all things—and then having a filmmaker offer you a chance to show the world your true self only to keep shutting you up whenever you start talking about what’s on your mind.
But that’s the whole point of this movie, of course. A beautifully constructed collaboration between filmmaker and subject, Winnebago Man is about a lot of things, though mostly it’s about the frustrations of fame in our savvy, superficial age.
Steinbauer, who seems like a very nice guy (he could be played by Paul Rudd if they made a Hollywood version of Winnebago Man) was at the IFC Waverly screening I went to yesterday. In a Q&A after the movie, he pointed out that Rebner’s desire to have an audience while remaining a hermit is just what social media lets you do these days, so Steinbauer maintains a Winnebago Man twitter feed for him, posting Rebner’s responses to questions he asks. He also said Rebner will be at the screening tomorrow at the Landmark Sunshine at 7. If you live in New York, you might want to be there too.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.